Guns, fascism, infighting and couch-surfing: Researcher Serena Tarr recounts a year studying the alt-right

Emma McClatchey writes:

On March 4, 2018, after following around Richard Spencer and his alt-right entourage for months, Serena Tarr found herself in Michigan for the Foundation for the Marketplace of Ideas conference, organized by Kyle Bristow, the white nationalist attorney who used to sue colleges that rejected requests for Spencer to speak. But due to public pressure and possibly death threats, Bristow backed out at the last minute, and the “conference” was relocated from Detroit to a house in Ann Arbor.

Tarr followed.

One group that attended was the Traditionalist Worker Party, a self-styled neo-Nazi organization that has since imploded over a bizarre set of circumstances involving a love triangle within the leadership.

“These are not the suit-and-tie kind of guys,” she explained. “They wear all black, they’ve got an insignia. They were heavily armed with knives on them, weapons.”

Since she met Spencer, Tarr, an associate professor of sociology at Kirkwood Community College, found the white nationalist leader lived up to his reputation as a talkative attention-seeker. But the TWP were not the kind of people you walk up to with a pad of paper, asking for their digits.

Tarr wandered around the party, simply observing. She started conversing with one TWP member.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“I told you my name,” she replied.

“No, who are you.”

“I’m a researcher.”

Then he said something strange, Tarr recalls, something along the lines of, “I could smell your flirtation a mile away.”

She laughed. “You think I’m flirting with you?”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s kind of like when a girl shows up at a party with a skirt that’s too short and she pretends like she wasn’t asking for it.”

“This conversation’s over,” Tarr said. She’d heard a lot of detestable language and ideas in the course of studying alt-right communities, but this was the first time she felt truly unsafe. As she turned to leave the party, people began stirring. The location of the gathering had been compromised, and anti-fascist militants were surrounding the house.

The alt-righters were tying handkerchiefs around their faces and grabbing guns — “they looked like something Rambo would carry,” Tarr said — to chase away the antifa. Tarr went outside to find nails had been scattered all over the driveway, blocking in her car. No violence ensued from the conflict, but it was another couple of hours before she was able to leave.

After nearly a year accompanying the alt-right, Tarr will be sharing stories like this with the public for the first time at the Englert Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 13 for the Witching Hour festival.

Tarr hails from Seattle, Washington, the daughter of a Marxist scholar father and mother who studied world systems theory. “I grew up with very leftist, radical politics in the home,” she said.

She received her bachelor’s degree in women’s studies and Spanish from Washington State University, where she also earned her master’s, studying fascism and gender. She held a number of positions in academia before arriving at Kirkwood in Iowa City.

Shocked by the election of Donald Trump, she sought and received an endowment to study the female Trump base in Iowa. At the same time, she was staying abreast of news related to Richard Spencer and his National Policy Institute (NPI), who advocate for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and a separation of the races…

Tarr managed to contact Evan McLaren, then the executive director of NPI, who let her apply to attend their 2017 annual conference. Her application was accepted, and she was instructed to appear at a secret pick-up location in Arlington, Virginia on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. She did.

“A white van pulled up, a guy rolls down his window and asks me my name. I tell him my name, he told me to put my phone in the bag and get in the van. I complied.”

“I can feel every hair on my body, that kind of heightened awareness of my surroundings, all the while I’m trying to sort of seem calm and not say, ‘Oh my God, what the fuck. Did I really just get into a white van with white supremacists?’”

Her fellow passengers were six men and one woman, looking to be in their 20s or 30s.

“I quickly became aware that the normal sort of social rules governing polite conversation don’t apply,” Tarr said. “You can’t ask personal details, so your conversational toolkit is off the table.”

One of the men did disclose that he was an elementary school teacher in a poor urban area, with many students of color. “He explained to me his theory about behavior in the classroom and that it directly corresponded with skin color,” she recalled.

The van stopped at a “barn-slash-winery,” Tarr said, in what she later learned was Maryland. Along one wall was an omelet bar, attended by an African-American woman.

About 150-200 people, mostly young men, were in attendance. Tarr managed to secure eight interviewees during the conference and establish a relationship with the group’s “thought leaders,” including Spencer and McLeran. She was excited.

Her dean at Kirkwood helped fund her trip to the NDI conference, but the bulk of her alt-right study relied on contributions from Tarr’s family, including her parents…

These beliefs — and the harsh racist and sexist language that accompanies them — didn’t surprise Tarr in her interviews. What did surprise her were the demographics of those sharing them. They were college-educated, some at Ivy League schools. A few were well-traveled and spoke several languages. Many grew up in tolerant homes.

She discovered a good percentage of alt-righters and big-pocket donors to the movement are in the tech industry. Tarr can’t explain why guys in tech specifically are attracted to the alt-right, but she speculates a “lack of a good liberal arts education” may contribute. Some of her interviewees complained about the one diversity class they had to take in college. “Maybe we need to make that a more robust requirement,” she posited.

Tarr has identified three distinct pathways most alt-righters take to their beliefs. The first were online communities discussing how to pick up women, including involuntary celibates (incels), who blame women for denying them sex. The second was libertarianism. The third and most surprising was Bernie Sanders; more than half of her 30 subjects were disillusioned Sanders supporters.

The idea that the alt-right is anti-socialist is a misconception, Tarr says. In fact, she found many alt-righters in Spencer’s circle lean left on progressive issues such as climate change and universal healthcare, but are most concerned with securing progress for white people.

Zoe Swinton writes:

Witching Hour: Among the Bogeymen – a year with the alt-right @ The Englert

Spencer, an openly alt-right activist, is often credited for the resurfacing of this ideology. (It should be noted that although it hasn’t always been visible, the alt-right has always been present in the United States). Serena begins to talk to the participants, explaining that she must gain their trust through signing NDAs—which provide stipulations for both them and her.

Ultimately, however, the unapologetically misogynistic ideals of the group allow her to conduct interviews. Since she is a married woman, she is not taken as a threat because she is “another man’s property.” It feels comfortable to speak, she says, when “assured by anonymity and treated with the decency of human beings.”

An acquaintance sees Serena with Spencer and other known members of the alt-right and begins asking questions. She explains the purpose of her association, and when she refuses to share her research findings with him until she finishes the study, citing the NDAs as a major cause, he doxxes her. This puts her safety at risk and her study in jeopardy, but she continues.

After another convention called CPAC, heavy because of the views expressed and further dispiriting because of the “gratuitous and endless use of the n-word,” Serena falters. When she gets into an Uber to head home, the Black man driving asks her how she’s doing. Though she initially responds thatshe’s okay, she immediately retracts the statement by telling the truth. The whole truth.

In the back of the car, Serena breaks down. The driver pulls over and holds her as she cries and vents about the people and ideologies with which she is associating for her study. The two exchange numbers, and the man reasonably hesitates when he drops her off at her destination of the loft, the unofficial NPI headquarters.

He checks on her that night, and when she becomes nervous again, he reminds her of the importance of her work. “What you are doing matters. What you are doing matters to me and my babies.”

Serena goes to another convention. The attendees gather at a Staples, waiting to be ferried to the actual location. Serena and another woman pick up four men, two of whom are college-aged and two of whom are older. A younger man, whom Serena describes as looking like Ron Weasley, is an economics major at a university. An older man proudly states his family’s three-generation involvement with the Ku Klux Klan.

Approximately 150 attendees eventually convene at a house, the meeting point for this convention. When Spencer gives his speech, the house booms in proclamations of “Sieg heil! Sieg heil!” After the speech is over, while Serena speaks with a man making sexist and lewd comments toward her, the mood of the party suddenly shifts. People put on black masks and arm themselves as they flood out the door. Antifa discovered the meeting location.

Serena goes to two more conventions and even meets Spencer’s estranged wife and mother in Montana before ending her research. She creates a dialogue between members of the right and left but calls it only “a small success.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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